SQUIRMING ON one of those tiny children's school chairs, DeJuane Hicks is reading up a storm. It's only the fourth day of the Summer Academy at George Kelson Elementary School in Sandtown-Winchester, but DeJuane, 6, already knows his stuff, and he's eager to show off.
He's reading a story from a book in the Direct Instruction curriculum, the reading program of choice in 18 Baltimore schools, most of them in the city's most distressed neighborhoods.
DI, as it is called, does things differently. Laden with phonics, it isn't popular among establish- mentarians, and a lot of teachers despise its tight scripting.
As he reads, DeJuane points to the words. Many education experts disapprove of pointing, but DI encourages the practice.
The text for beginning readers starts sentences with lowercase letters. (Capitalization comes later.) Silent letters, such as the "e" in "stopped" or the "k" in "rock," are printed, but in much smaller type. Macrons - horizontal lines - are published over long vowels as a help to the new readers. All this gives DI text the look of a secret code.
Written instructions for DI teachers read like the prompts for a church congregation: "Ask, 'Did you ever see a real duck?' The children respond." DI teachers are told exactly what to say and when to say it: "My turn. Sound it out. Rock. Your turn. Sound it out. Rock."
But Direct Instruction, with all this eccentricity, has something going for it that most other reforms don't: It works. It has three decades of research and experience behind it. The scripts are written, tested, rewritten, field-tested and then revised until 90 percent of students grasp a lesson the first time around.
DI, once called DISTAR, used to be considered something of a cult. Today, though, Baltimore schools that use Direct Instruction have their own administrative area that includes Kelson, in West Baltimore, and City Springs, in the east. Both serve the poorest of Baltimore's poor, and both showed good gains in reading in this year's Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national standardized test, especially in the key first and second grades.
"DI has worked wonders for the children," says Joyce Hughes, the Kelson principal. "This year, I had the kindergartners reading over the intercom. They loved it."
Kelson's voluntary six-week Summer Academy is designed to prevent the "summer slide" experienced especially by children who don't have a lot of literary experiences during the vacation. Several entities, including the city school system, are involved in the academy. The principal actors are the Enterprise Foundation, which leverages private money to rebuild communities, and the Annenberg Foundation, the source of the private funds.
Enterprise doesn't run the academy as a summer camp or a charity. Its primary purpose is educational. "To show that we're serious and to make sure that parents are serious, we charge $15 for the six weeks," says Tina Hike, the Enterprise Foundation's education program director. "But parents pay only if they can. We don't reject a child who can't pay."
The academy's student-teacher ratio would be the envy of any school. It allows one-on-one tutoring and one-on-two instruction. With rare exceptions, says Hike, student groupings are limited to six.
On a muggy morning in late June, 165 students and 36 teachers are at work in the academy. Twelve teachers are "mentors" for 24 "novices," most of them AmeriCorps students such as Keresse Burton, a 21-year-old art education major at Virginia State University. After two weeks of training, Burton is in her fourth day of teaching - ever.
She's working with a group of three first-graders who are answering questions in a workbook about one of the DI stories. "Two hours is a bit much, I think, for children this age," says Burton of the time set aside each morning for reading. "But it's a good program. The important thing is that they're learning."
Nearby, DeJuane Hicks is reading another DI story in unison with his friend Eric Cooper, also 6. The two are wonderfully fluent, thrillingly so. DeJuane pauses only once, on the word "faster." I can hear him sounding it out phonetically. Eric waits, letting DeJuane do the work.
When they're done with the story, I ask DeJuane how long he's been such a good reader.
"Nine years," he says proudly.